LOLA HOAD doesn’t remember when she was last touched.
“I wish I’d known that the final time I hugged or kissed someone it would have been my last bit of human contact for months,” she says.
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“I live by myself, I already worked from home and I’ve been single for two years, so I’m used to spending long periods alone. But this is something else.
“Your mind goes to some weird places, the loneliness is numbing.”
Graphic designer Lola, 25, from Glasgow, is just one in nearly a quarter of British adults who the Mental Health Foundation say are struggling with loneliness during lockdown.
Experts warn that extended isolation could have a detrimental effect on our mental and physical health.
The UK was in the grip of a loneliness epidemic even before the current confinement began, with a survey by the British Red Cross in November 2018 revealing a shocking 9 million Brits said they were lonely.
Before that, a study by the University of Greenwich in 2011 found that 86% of 25-35 year olds felt alone, and a research by the Mental Health Foundation in 2014 reported that 18-24 year olds were four times more likely to feel lonely “all the time” as those aged 70 and over.
According to the ONS, young women are the loneliest of all, as they often value one-on-one relationships more than men.
This is something Lola, who hosts the One Girl Band podcast and has been entirely on her own since the lockdown began on March 23, can relate to.
“It’s really hard seeing the pictures my friends with partners are posting on social media at the moment, captioned with: ‘So lucky I get to quarantine with this one!’ I try not to feel bitter, but my other single friends all live with flatmates or have gone back to their family home.
"That’s not an option for me because I’m based in Glasgow, while my family live in England. Although they are only a phone call away, it’s not the same as being together,” Lola says.
I’ve got no one to hug when I feel anxious
“I think the isolation I’m experiencing can be hard for my friends to understand.
“I’ve got no one to hug when I feel anxious, and no one to distract me from constantly checking the news.”
The prospect of falling ill also weighs heavily on Lola’s mind.
“I’d have no one to look after me, so I’d just have to stick it out alone,” she says.
“My neighbours are great and I have friends nearby, but I feel bad about putting it on other people when everyone is already feeling overwhelmed.
“Being alone also heightens the feeling that we’re all in a state of limbo.
“I’m wondering when I will go on a date again. I’ve seen friends through the window, but it’s upsetting not knowing when we’ll next be together,” she adds.
This feeling of isolation is a new low
Lola, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder last year after struggling with extreme mood swings since she was 12, says that the loneliness she has experienced since the lockdown began feels worse than the extreme “down” periods she goes through as part of her condition
“I’m taking medication and have been doing my regular therapy over the phone, but have noticed the anxiety and depression that comes with my condition get worse.
“This feeling of isolation is a new low,” she says.
Claire Cohen from mental health charity Mind confirms that lockdown loneliness can exacerbate mental health issues.
“We know it can have an impact on existing problems, such as depression and anxiety, as well as financial worries and problems at home,” she says.
“And with the NHS under so much pressure, we’re hearing that many people with mental health problems are struggling to access services, treatment and support.”
Studies have shown that loneliness exacts a physical toll on the body as well as the brain.
Researchers found that the health consequences are the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be more damaging than obesity.*
It’s widely reported that lonely people are also more likely to suffer from heart disease and dementia.
Plus, loneliness is likely to increase your risk of death by 26%, no matter what your age, race, class or gender.**
Although social distancing measures and self-isolation have been essential to stopping the spread of Covid-19, many experts are worried about the long-term effects this could have.
“Even when the lockdown is eased slightly, we’re likely to see some significant knock-on effects later down the line.
“We are social beings, whose very survival was once dependent on being part of a tribe,” says psychotherapist John-Paul Davies.
“Loneliness is not just a feeling – it’s a biological warning sign to seek out other human contact in the same way as hunger is a signal that you need to find food.
“We need social connections to function.”
Jenny Pace, 32, a self-employed business coach from Cambridge, had her first baby, daughter Xanthe, eight months ago, and was about to restart work after maternity leave when the lockdown began.
“I had only recently got out of the fog of being a new mum, and had finally started to get out to baby groups and meet friends.
“I was looking forward to getting back to work part-time,” she says.
'DAYS FEEL ENDLESS'
“Now work is on hold because the nursery I found is closed and the loneliness is even worse than I experienced in the early days of motherhood.
“You can feel like you’re going mad because you’re so sleep-deprived and you’re doing the same things on repeat. The days feel endless.
"Getting out to see other people was a real sanity-saver, so now that’s been taken away I worry about how I’ll cope.
“I’ve not had any postnatal mental health issues, but the loneliness I’m experiencing now is like a physical heaviness.
“Because I’m up in the night with the baby, the days and nights blur into one.
“When she used to get grizzly, I’d put her in her pram and take her out for a change of scenery.
“But now we can’t do that without planning it as our one trip out for the day.”
Despite Jenny’s husband Ryan, 42, a technical product manager, now having to work from home, she is still struggling with feelings of isolation.
“Ryan is very supportive, but he’s working long hours in the study, so even though he’s in the house, it does feel like I’m on my own with her again – and back to square one,” she explains.
Experts agree that often it is our connection to other people and the world around us that dictates how lonely we feel.
“It’s important to note the difference between being alone and feeling lonely,” says John-Paul.
“Many people don’t realise they’re lonely because they have a partner, a family or a busy job. Yet you can still feel lonely.”
There are times in life when loneliness peaks – early motherhood, moving cities or post divorce, for example.
Research published in International Psychogeriatrics found that the feeling tends to spike in your late-20s, mid-50s and late-80s.
“It can manifest in different ways and at different times in life, but loneliness tends to be →a lack of meaningful connection,” says Peter Andersen, professor emeritus at the School of Communication at San Diego State University.
“Under normal circumstances we might diagnose someone as lonely if they often feel they have nobody to talk to, they can’t tolerate being alone or they feel isolated.
“It’s a longing for depth and intimacy.
"That’s why video calls, although better than a phone call or a text, only go so far.
“Just 30% of face-to-face communication is the words we speak.
“Body language, tone of voice and physical interaction count far more than you think.”
How often we’re touched by another person also determines how lonely we feel.
Even before social distancing, half a million older people were going at least five days a week without seeing or touching anyone at all.
That figure will now be much higher.
“Touch is powerful as it releases oxytocin, which is the natural love hormone,” says Peter.
“You see it during mother-infant bonding, during an orgasm and while hugging.
“Now, many people are not getting the same level of oxytocin release from human contact.”
Not being able to hug her boyfriend is something Grace Latter, 26, from Hastings, is finding especially hard.
In 2015, she underwent surgery and radiotherapy after being diagnosed with a brain tumour, and was identified as vulnerable when it came to Covid-19.
She is currently self-isolating at home.
“On March 23 I received a text and a shielding letter from the NHS telling me I had to stay inside for three months,” she says.
“I immediately burst into tears.
“It felt so unfair to have beaten cancer but now have to deal with this.
“Although I’m no longer taking medication or having treatment, I’m still considered high risk as I’ve had cancer in the past.
“Being told I had to self-isolate for so long made me feel cut off.”
Although her partner, who she has been with since January 2019, offered to move in and stay with her, they’ve decided to live apart.
“I have a very small flat and my boyfriend’s sporty.
“I think he’d go crazy if he wasn’t able to get out and exercise properly for three months – but I’m not even allowed out for a walk,” she says.
“I can’t go to the supermarket, but I’m on the priority list for delivery slots so that’s how I’m getting food.
“Most days my boyfriend roller-skates past my flat and calls me so we chat on the phone while looking through the window, which helps,” she adds.
'THE SMALLEST THINGS MAKE ME CRY'
Grace, who was working for Lush as well as a friend’s jewellery store before the lockdown, says the first week of isolation was the hardest.
“Even the smallest things would make me cry, like hearing the Friends theme tune from my neighbour’s flat because I used to watch it with my mates and I now had no one to watch it with,” she says.
“When I had my brain tumour treatment I was 21 and the only young person on my ward, and that experience was very lonely.
“But when you’re completely removed from the world, you miss human contact desperately.”
A survey by the ONS found that 77% of people said keeping in touch with friends and family remotely was helping them cope with staying at home under lockdown.
“Try to arrange a regular phone call or video call with family and friends,” says Claire.
“You could think about organising a quiz or creative activity which you can do communally.
“Also, try to build physical activity into your routine as we know that helps with mental health.
“If you’ve been advised not to leave your home, there are plenty of options for indoor exercise, such as online workouts.”
Grace says that she’s slowly adjusting.
“I have a really good support network online and am texting my parents and video calling my friends a lot,” she says.
“I’m dancing every morning and I also write goals in my diary each day – finish reading that book, watch that Netflix show, hand-wash that jumper.
“And I’m making lists of the things I’m going to do when this is all over – like just going to my local coffee shop with friends for a strong americano.”
Jenny has also found good coping strategies.
“When things get bad I call my sister or mum, or I take the baby and march up and down in the garden,” she says.
“During early motherhood I’d find it comforting thinking about all the other mums going through the same thing, now I think about that even more. It makes me feel less alone.”
Lola has taken up running.
“It’s horrendous, but it’s helping,” she laughs.
“I’m also trying not to think too far in advance, and just taking things a day at a time.”
Peter says it’s important to remember that what we are experiencing now is temporary.
“The danger is that people remain isolated after the risk dissipates,” he says.
“In situations where public drinking water systems became unsafe, even after the water was made safe again, people didn’t trust it and refused to drink it.
“I hope we don’t become fearful of human contact after this.
“Just like we’re worried about an economic recession, we should worry about a social recession – a continued pattern of socially distancing that will have broader effects, particularly for the vulnerable.”
But there is hope that we might come out of this crisis less lonely than before.
“Under lockdown many people have discovered an increased sense of community and support,” John-Paul says.
“Some people are talking to their neighbours and their family and friends more than they used to.
“When we finish this period of isolation we will come out of it with stronger ties.
"I think it might actually improve our bonds with others by illustrating how important human connection is. And that can help protect our health and even save our sanity.”
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